The Past Awaits: People, Film, Images
Craig Potton Publishing, $69.99,
The Past Awaits joins a number of recent pictorial books on aspects of Aotearoa New Zealand cinema, such as Ian Brodie’s A Journey Through New Zealand Film (2007) and Duncan Petrie’s and Stuart Murray’s A Coming of Age (2008). The current offering is a personal take on the work of a seminal figure: director and screenwriter Vincent Ward.
One of New Zealand’s premier auteurs – awarded the Order of Merit in 2008 – Ward is known for visionary filmmaking, often combining a local sense of place with an aesthetic grounded in the European art house tradition. Vigil (1984) is iconic not only in its stark visual beauty but also in terms of its status within Aotearoa’s cultural landscape. More recent cinematic work, which takes aspects of our national past as subject matter, reflects his return to New Zealand after a stint in Hollywood. Overtly an account of Ward’s rich filmic oeuvre, The Past Awaits combines accounts of his films and their production with personal anecdotes, occasional quotes from other sources (such as long-term collaborator Louis Nowra), and Ward’s thoughtful, almost epigrammatic musings on aspects of his life and career. For the director himself, the two are inseparable. His films, he feels, are “coordinates in a map of my life”.
It is difficult for still images to do justice to moving ones, but the large format and lavish photographic content of this edition really do capture something of the striking, marvellous imagery for which Ward’s films are known. Over 160 colour illustrations are packed into just over a couple of hundred pages, with accompanying text. Those familiar with the director’s work will recognise favourite shots and scenes and may find new pleasures in poring over other images which might have passed unnoticed in the flux of cinema.
Double-page spreads are given to What Dreams May Come (1998), a film which won an Oscar for visual effects during Ward’s seven-year stint in Hollywood. Frame grabs and production stills from the films themselves are supplemented with drawings and paintings by Ward and by a number of snapshots and posed photographs. The inclusion of the latter material adds a further dimension to the map. Here be dragons: those Hollywood years are illustrated by poignant shots of an actress naked on an office chair, acting out the director’s vision of a woman on the back of a monster. Another gem is a photo of Ward’s son Finch, with Hamish MacFarlane, who has his own children’s drawings tattooed on his skin. An adjacent “diary entry” reminds us that as a child, MacFarlane played the boy Griffin in The Navigator (1988); and he later worked as first assistant director on the docudrama Rain of the Children (2008). Such a layering of past and present, of Ward’s personal world and the worlds within his films, is a recurrent motif. Another such confluence lies in Ward’s charting of Rain of the Children, a film which centres on his fascination with Te Puhi Tatu, the woman at the heart of his early documentary In Spring One Plants Alone (1981).
The Past Awaits signals its author’s interest in the formative relationships between past and present through a somewhat idiosyncratic organisation of material. Rather than giving a strictly chronological account of Ward’s career, the book begins with a section on “The Journey Home” which speaks of the director’s recent return to the subject of Puhi. The section then turns to his sojourn in Hollywood, and finishes with an account of the locally made period film River Queen (2005), encompassing its subject matter, the writing process, and Ward’s measured take on this film’s notoriously troubled production.
Subsequent sections of the book cover his earlier work, but tend to concentrate on personal reflection, or on later interactions with his actors. For instance, a segment on Vigil begins with a brief account of the story, then ruminates on how the author’s relationship with his father influenced this work. Ending with a description of Vigil’s child actress (Fiona Kay) as an adult, Ward muses on the connections between writer, actors, and characters. This difference in the treatment of the earlier films is perhaps unsurprising, given that detailed accounts of their production have already appeared in Ward’s earlier book The Edge of the Earth (1990). The Ouroboros-like structure of The Past Awaits effectively creates an impressionistic, subjective picture of its subject matter which emphasises the connections Ward is interested in making between different people and themes in his life and work.
The central importance of imagery for Ward finds its way into his anecdotes, leaving the reader with a set of compelling mental pictures – sinister Hollywood producers looking like aliens; a maniacal playwright fishing pornography out of a bin; or Ward himself with damaged kneecaps, dangling in an abyss as he wonders how he will be able to finish a film. Ward does not conceal the difficulty he has sometimes experienced in making films in Aotearoa, at one point noting that “the only return is the value of seeing our stories told.” As The Past Awaits demonstrates, this return is valuable indeed. While highly personal, and revealing in places, the book is not an autobiography but rather a portrait of the artist through the prism of his art.
In his introduction, Ward remarks that the process of creating the book is in a sense self-referential. “These pictures are about people,” he says; “perhaps by seeing into the lives of these people, I will see more clearly into my own.” It follows that the reader, too, may expect to see into the life of Ward the man. While the book does offer this insight, it does so obliquely – rather like Ward’s painting Woman in Black Skirt (2009) in which a focal figure remains tantalisingly elusive. The spotlight, though, is on Ward’s personal vision, and The Past Awaits does this vision justice. If this is a map, it is a map which reveals treasure.
Liv Macassey teaches in the film programme at Victoria University of Wellington.